By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 1, 2008
GOLDEN HILL, Md. -- Contestant No. 1 sashayed down the catwalk, her hair bouncing in blonde curls, and smiled a radiant beauty-queen smile. She picked up a furry dead rodent about the size of a football.
Then she took out a very sharp four-inch blade and stuck the point in just above the animal's tail.
"Then," she said, narrating the incision as sweetly as a Miss America contestant talking about world peace, "you're going to want to take your knife . . . "
This was the "talent" portion of the 2008 Miss Outdoors pageant, part of an improbable Eastern Shore festival that combines the worlds of beauty contests and competitive muskrat skinning.
For years here, young women have paraded in glittery evening gowns, and then -- on the same stage -- skinners in camouflage hats have separated small animals from their pelts.
This year, two girls chose to do both.
Their story played out less than 60 miles from Washington, in a place where time is slowly eroding a culture built around the Chesapeake Bay's boot-sucking marshes. These teenagers were afraid that, without their participation, both the pageant and the skinning races might decline even further.
So they sought to take on a hybrid role, one foot in their world and one in their grandparents'. In one weekend, they would be both modern princesses and old-time, blood-covered 'rat-skinners.
" . . . You want to take your knuckles," 17-year-old Samantha Phillips, Contestant No. 1, was saying. One of the pageant judges squinched up her face in shock. "And separate the meat from the hide, just like this."
"Oh my God!" a boy in the audience yelled, at the sight of a woman in perfect makeup with her hand inside a muskrat.
Then, from another part of the crowd: an older woman's voice: "She's good."
The pageant and the skinning contest were part of the 63rd annual National Outdoor Show, held last weekend in the town of Golden Hill. To get there, drivers turn off the highway to Ocean City and wind more than 15 miles through marshes to a rural crossroads. There is little evidence of town or hill.
"This is really the end of the world, back up five feet," one contestant's mother said.
The festival began with the muskrats -- bucktoothed marsh critters whose pelts are sold to the fur trade. Over the decades, friendly rivalries among local skinners gave birth to the World Championship Muskrat Skinning Contest, which now draws crowds of more than 1,000.
Its rules are simple: "Fastest time, clean 'rat," locals say, meaning that the hides can't be nicked or torn as they're removed. The pelts are usually taken home and sold by the skinners; the carcasses are sometimes stewed with liberal amounts of sage and eaten. Scientists do not believe the event presents a threat to the local muskrat population.
For 54 years, the skinning contest has also been accompanied by a beauty contest.
No one here thinks that's odd.
"It's not like, 'Oh my God, it's a beauty pageant!' 'Oh my God, they're skinning muskrats!' " said Tiffany Brittingham, 22, a sixth-grade science teacher. "It's just a norm."
Still, for decades, it wasn't the norm for women to do both. They were pageant people or skinning people. Then came Brittingham in 2003.
"She skinned a muskrat in full makeup and sparkly earrings," said Amy Nicholson, a New York-based filmmaker who shot a documentary, "Muskrat Lovely," during the 2004 pageant, when Brittingham did the same thing. "You kind of can't believe it's actually happening."
In 2005, when she walked out for the talent portion of the pageant with a muskrat thrown over her shoulder, a man in the audience yelled above the cheers, "I want to marry you!"
On that third try, Brittingham won.
This year, both Phillips and Dakota Abbott, 16, entered both the beauty contest and the skinning competition. Phillips also chose to skin during the pageant's talent portion.
"I'll be honest," she said. "I can't sing, I can't dance and I don't play any musical instruments." So it had to be muskrats.
But both said they were also motivated by something deeper: a strong attachment to a fast-changing place and the fear that someday people here might not care about beauty queens or know the smell of muskrat guts.
"Ten years ago . . . there was, what, probably 15 people in Miss Outdoors. We have five people this year," Abbott said. The skinning events also have fewer participants than they did decades ago. "If we don't keep it going, then it's not going to go anywhere."
The changes here stem from the decline of the Chesapeake's crab and oyster harvests and the faltering market for muskrat pelts. Dorchester County's traditional jobs, the ones that inspired the Outdoor Show's muskrat skinning and oyster-shucking contests, have begun to dry up. Phillips's father, for instance, sold his waterman's boat and now works in an office.
At the same time, some local young people have absorbed a bit more of popular culture, which places little value on small-town pageants -- and zero on muskrat skinning.
For instance, Rhonda Aaron, a repeat women's skinning champion, recently had a female protege stop skinning. She thinks she knows why.
"Look at this," said Aaron, 54, holding up red hands after a recent evening of practice in her garage. "I have to go in and soak my hands in bleach every night to get the blood out of my fingernails."
But, if other people want out, Phillips and Abbott want in. Phillips is headed to Villa Julie College near Baltimore next year, and Abbott, a junior, is also thinking about schools outside the Eastern Shore. Phillips will study nursing; Abbott is thinking about marine biology. There's no guarantee they will be able to find jobs back here.
So while they still had time, the two wanted to dive as deep as possible into the traditions of Chesapeake marsh country -- a place where beauty queens can get their hands bloody.
"It's not weird," Phillips said. "You can be graceful and beautiful and well-poised and skin a muskrat."
To prepare, Phillips and Abbott had to practice skinning, repeating the series of cuts and yanks necessary to take off a muskrat's hide. And then they had to practice other skills that seemed to belong to a different world.
"Then you do this: Sweet. Talking. Sugar. Coated. Candy. Man . . . and then the shimmy," said pageant choreographer April Reid, leading the five contestants through a dance to Christina Aguilera's racy song, "Candyman." She was showing them a flirty gesture to punctuate every word. Then, again: "Bum, bum, bum, bum-bum. Shake a little butt," Reid said.
Finally, on Feb. 22, it was time.
"I'm a little scared," Phillips said. She was in a locker room at South Dorchester School, a few minutes before the pageant, with curlers in her hair and a dead muskrat in a plastic bag. The animal had been caught in a spring-loaded trap in a nearby marsh that morning. Now, it looked awfully fluffy.
"I did blow-dry it," Phillips said.
The competition started with the dance number, then an onstage interview of each contestant. Then it was time for talent. Phillips changed out of the beige suit she'd worn for the interview and came out in hip waders, a plaid shirt and jeans. Trapper's clothes.
"I'm going to show you how to get a muskrat from his house to yours," she said. The crowd, estimated at more than 700 people, buzzed. The judges recoiled. She set the muskrat down on a sheet of cardboard, cut into its skin, peeled the hide back, and then, after a few cuts around the head, wiggled the pelt free.
"There's the, the fur," she said, "and there's the meat." Screams and applause. The carcass was taken offstage, Phillips went to scrub her hands and the next contestant came out to play Beethoven's "F¿r Elise" on the piano.
Abbott went a more conventional route: She belted out a song by pop-country star and "American Idol" alum Kellie Pickler. When she came offstage, a close family friend was literally leaping for joy in the hallway: "Yougotit, yougotit, yougotit!"
She was right. A few minutes later, the enormous sparkling crown of Miss Outdoors was set on Abbott's head. She had become the queen that she had envied so much as a child.
"It's cool, because everybody gets to look at you," she said afterward. "And all the little girls are like, 'I wanna be like her.' "
And from there, it only got better for her. On Saturday, the day of the skinning championships, Abbott was first introduced to the crowd in her crown and gown. "There's Dakota Abbott," one boy said to another at the back of the school gymnasium. "Hotssss." Then she put on ratty jeans and skinned two muskrats in 1 minute, 42 seconds to win the women's junior world championship. No Miss Outdoors in recent memory had ever won a skinning championship.
Phillips won a trophy in the skinning competition -- unsurprisingly, since she was the only one competing in her beginner's division. And in the pageant the night before, as everybody waited to hear the top finishers, emcee Buddy Foxwell had called her name.
"Your first runner-up, 2008 . . . Samantha Phillips!" he said. She had already won the award for the top talent. "Take a walk, Sam."
Phillips took her turn on the catwalk, waving to the crowd in a glamorous, shimmering black evening gown.
There was still a little muskrat blood under her nails.